It's the final entry of this 3-part mini-series. Looking at bodies, listening to others' words, and now: forming a theology of bodies.
What does that even mean, Beth? And what if I don't believe in God or care about theology?
I know that many of you reading this may not share my beliefs regarding God. But I feel certain that there are still relevant ideas to consider, including an overview of what I think a Christian view of bodies is...Hint: it's not what we usually hear/feel when we think about the big religion. So read on! (please.) Or not. It's entirely up to you. I like you, either way.
I was fourteen or fifteen the first time I realized that God and I disagreed about my body. In hindsight, things were on the brink of a dangerous downward spiral for me. I hated my body, and treated it poorly. And one night, lying in my bed, God and I finally had it out. The God I believed in said that my body is fearfully and wonderfully made, that he knit me together and that I am precious and honoured and loved. I had a choice to make; was I going to live out of my beliefs, or God's?*
This is what I mean by a “theology of the body:” what we believe that God believes about human bodies. Or if God is not a part of your worldview, a philosophy of bodies would be what you believe is universally true about human bodies.
You may think you don't have a theology or philosophy about bodies, but you do. We all do.
Whether we have systematically thought through and chosen our beliefs in an intentional manner, or we've been brought up in a context that taught us things we've never questioned, whether we have the ability to easily articulate the things we believe or whether we struggle to identify the answers to questions about our personal perspectives, we each have a complex system of beliefs that our lives are formed around, and that includes beliefs about bodies.
Here is the other important philosophical note I need to make before moving forward: for all of us, there are gaps and disparities between our spoken beliefs and our practiced beliefs. For example, teenage-Beth would have said, “Yes, God loves me and God made me.” But was I living out of that belief? Not in the least.
Over the past several years, as I've unpacked the beliefs I live out of, I've realized that most of them have their roots in church culture and personal negative experiences rather than the words and actions of God in my life and throughout human history.
I don't want to live out of those beliefs anymore. If the spoken and the lived beliefs don't line up, one or the other needs to change... for me, it's been a little bit of both.
(You with me? Is this making sense? Good. Let's get into the good stuff then.)
|Me, thinking deeply, way back in 2007. I still make this face.|
- Bodies are good. Here's what I believe: God created humans with human bodies. He didn't have to. He could have made us with some other sort of strange bodies, or no bodies – he made other creatures like that. But he also made humans, with human bodies. And when I look at the creation narrative in Genesis, one of the things it tells us is that God was pleased with the world he made, and the creatures he made, and the people he made. He made humans on purpose, uniquely in His image (what does that mean!? Let's think about that for a year or two) and then he said that we were Good.
- Bodies are more than one thing. We cannot narrow the purpose of our bodies to any one thing. Nor can we exclude any of the natural realities of life. I am not defined by my physical abilities or inabilities. I am not simply my sexuality and my sexual choices; nor am I meant to deny that to be human is to be sexual.** Whether or not I bear children does not determine the fulfillment of my bodily existence. Different messages about our bodies' worth are bombarded at each of us: you are not defined by your weight, the clarity of your skin, the number of ab-muscles visible at the beach, whether you dance like an angel or regularly run into furniture, the many health issues you may have.
- What we do with our bodies matters. Our bodies were made Good, and our bodies are Good, but what we do with our bodies does matter. This is one of the things that I conclude both from the Old Testament Laws that often seem strange and irrelevant, and from the New Testament stories of how Jesus lived his live. He touched people he was not supposed to touch, took his self places he was not expected, used his body to back up the words of love and grace that he spoke. We can choose to do the same. Do we use our bodies to give or take, to speak words of hope and love or to tear others down?
- Bodies and souls are not easily separable. In the early Christian era, a group of religions/beliefs taught that matter is bad but spirit is good. These gnostics separated the world into two types of matter, and taught that to seek the spiritual, one must shun the material. This belief is still around in many spaces, not the least of which is the Christian church. But humans are integrated beings. Bodies are not strictly functional, an unfortunate necessity for life. The physical, the psychological, and the spiritual do not fit in neat, unconnected little boxes.*** We're spaghetti, not waffles (even the men!). This means that what we do with our bodies and how we take care of our bodies have implications on the part of our selves that is not physical matter, our minds/souls/spirits.
- God became a body. I recognize that my spiritual and religious beliefs are, to many people, strange. And this is one of the weirdest of all of them. I fully believe that God took on a human body and became one of us. Jesus is the embodiment of God – God with skin on, my old pastor liked to say. I believe Jesus lived, died, and came back to life in a physical body. This has implications for all kinds of things, one of which is how I view bodies. If God chose to become a body, and kept that body after conquering death then... then what? What does that mean for us meagre little ants on a pale blue dot? I am still trying to wrap my head around this. I think, at its most basic, it means that God loves us, bodies and all.
In my first post, I quoted from Barbara Brown Taylor. Now I will do so again, from An Altar in the World:
One of the truer things about bodies is that it is just about impossible to increase the reverence I show mine without also increasing the reverence I show yours.
Having bodies is what gives us humans common ground. For all our differences, each of us has a body. A body with unique strengths and weaknesses, flaws and perfections. We all eat and sleep and bleed and make our way through life held in by the amazingness that is skin. Science is incredible, folks! We know so much and so little about human bodies, and we. are. amazing. The more human science I learn, and the more I think theologically about bodies, the more in awe I am.
Bodies are amazing, and bodies are beautiful, and that means my body is amazing and beautiful, and I have this one body for the rest of my life, so I can choose to run it into the ground, give the whole issue no thought at all, or embrace these bones and innards and skin (cold, cold skin) and see what kind of good we can get up to.
* another way to phrase this is that I knew the universal truth, but hadn't followed it down to the specifics that would follow. That is, to say “People are loved by God” is one thing. To say “I am loved by God” is a natural extension of the first, but I wasn't making that connection.
** There is so much more to say here- a theology of sexuality is another big thing I've been thinking about, and could become a nearly unending series itself.
*** Also, I've been watching Joss Whedon's Dollhouse series, which has got me wondering all sorts of things about how our unseen minds/souls and bodies interact, and why we try so hard to pinpoint our "selves."